This week marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the National Health Service in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It seems appropriate that as people across the country celebrate this momentous occasion that we take a look back at early attempts in Belfast to provide healthcare to those who found the cost of treatment prohibitive.
In 1851 the History of the General Hospital was published by Dr A.G. Malcolm. It is clear from this early history that medical care in Belfast grew from very humble roots with the determination and tenacity of a relatively small number of men and women prior to the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.
Painting of the Poor House 1783 by NixonIn 1752 the Belfast Charitable Society was founded by a group of mostly Presbyterian merchants and industrialists who sought to erect a Poor House and an Infirmary- the infirmary, which opened in 1774, was the first hospital in Belfast. In the case of the Belfast Charitable Society, the medical care it provided in the Poor House and the Infirmary was administered by many of the doctors based in Belfast at the time, free of charge. One family in particular- the Purdons -deserve a special note for their provision of medical care in Clifton House. No fewer than eight Dr Purdons attended the House and Infirmary in an unbroken run from 1804 until 1947.
The infirmary at the Poor House was the only medical relief in Belfast until the Dispensary opened in 1792. An advertisement had been placed in the Newsletter seeking support for Belfast’s first chemist were citizens, particularly the poor and labouring classes, could get medicine at little or no cost. The signatories of the ‘Dispensary Notice’ included Valentine Jones, Waddell Cunningham and Robert Holmes, all of whom were members of the Belfast Charitable Society.
The provision of medical care for women began to develop in the late 18th century. The Lying-In Hospital, the first Maternity Hospital in Belfast, was developed by Lady Harriet Skeffington and 6. Lying-IN HospitalMartha McTier, sister of Dr William Drennan. The first Lying-In Hospital was first opened in 1794 in a house rented to them by the Belfast Charitable Society in Donegall Street. The Lying-In Hospital was later redeveloped and the new, ‘commodious building’, was built ‘at the upper-end of Donegall Street’ in 1830.The Lying-Hospital was replaced by the Royal Maternity Hospital in 1933.
By 1806 there were only nineteen physicians and surgeons working in the town of Belfast. Many of them were exceptionally generous with their time and skills, donating both to the new philanthropic medical facilities opening in 19th century Belfast. Not only did they provide the necessary skills, but in many cases they were the driving forces behind providing healthcare for the sick and poor of Belfast.
Of all the events in the history of Belfast, the Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, stretched medical provisions in the town to breaking point. In April 1846 an additional shed had to be erected at the General Hospital, and to accommodate the number of people needing treatment they reopened the old Cholera Buildings closed over a decade before. By summer that year the hospital was forced to erect tents which accommodated an extra 700 people.
Frederick Street Hospital Etching 1817By May 1846 the situation was so dire that the Poor House agreed to take all medical and surgical cases from the other hospitals so they could focus on fever victims. The death toll was sadly very high. In May 1847 the Charitable Society had to post-pone the closing of the Poor’s Ground. They also sought and received clearance from the Health Board to reopen the pauper’s ground used for the Cholera epidemic in 1832/33 due to the demand and lack of other space for burying the dead.
Practising the medical profession during this period was not without its risks. In July 1847 Surgeon James McCleery, who had served for 12 years as a doctor to the Poor House, died of fever contracted from the famine victims he was treating, aged 53.
Later in the 19th century, Dr Edward Benn, who had suffered with poor health throughout his life, established the Benn Skin Hospital in Glenravel Street in 1875; the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and benn hospitalThroat Hospital; and funded a new building for the Samaritan Hospital. The Skin Hospital was later destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 1941. When he passed away at Glenravel House on 3rd August 1874. His obituary in the Belfast Newsletter read:

“Mr Benn has left tangible proofs of his interest in the welfare of this town and its inhabitants. Amongst other tokens of this kind we point with gratifying pride to his munificence, out of which has been built two wings to that valuable institution administered by the Belfast Charitable Society; the splendid hospital for diseases of the eye, ear and throat; the Samaritan Hospital on the Lisburn Road; and kindred institutions, which will long preserve his memory and fame.”

The Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital continued to operate until the development of the Westlink, when Glenravel Street, where it stood, was demolished.
As this blog post has shown, it was small groups of philanthropic families and physicians that were the catalysts for change in Belfast. It is a fascinating journey to trace how the same people appear on the boards and in the minutes of so many charitable institutions. In 1948 with the introduction of the National Health Service, everyone could avail of free (at the point of need) medical care. So, happy birthday to the NHS!